Leadership has been the subject of study at least since Plato in the fourth century BC. Since then, various theories of leadership have been developed. Some examine what a leader looks like, others what a leader does, while others, how he or she manages people. Modern studies tend to focus on the impact leaders have on the individuals and organisations they lead.1
Such a vast subject can hardly be covered in a brief series of articles, but it may be helpful to unpack it and introduce some of the literature available. I hope, therefore, you will join me on a journey into leadership—feel free to discuss the issues in the comment section below. You are also welcome to pass on the articles to anyone you think may benefit.
Nature or nurture?
The key question most leadership studies ask is whether leaders are born or made. Can you learn to be a leader? Of course, those who answer the question (including this writer) are usually in the (paid) business of training leaders, so will naturally be biased towards the idea that leadership can be learned. However, there may be truth in what they say.
In his book, The Leadership, Mark Manley says, “There is no leadership gene in our genetic make-up, but there are characteristics or dimensions of leadership that need to be developed.”
Peter Drucker, in The Effective Executive writes, “…there is no ‘effective personality’. The effective executives I have seen differ widely in their temperaments and their abilities, in what they do and how they do it, in their personalities, their knowledge, their interests – in fact in almost everything…. All they have in common is the ability to get the right things done.”
But is that ability natural? Are they born with it, or is it something they learned along the way?
Kouzes and Posner, in their book The Leadership Challenge, write, “We’re all born. What we do with what we have before we die is up to us.”
The habits of a leader
Back in the fourth century BC, Aristotle wrote, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Peter Drucker came to the same conclusion about effective executives: “What all these effective executives have in common is the practices that make effective whatever they have and whatever they are.” He went on to say, “Effectiveness, in other words is a habit, that is a complex of practices.”
Other writers agree with him: Stephen Covey with his The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and Jim Collins in Good to Great with his “…greatness is not primarily a matter of circumstance; greatness is first and foremost a matter of conscious choice and discipline.”
It is fairly obvious that some leaders have natural advantages that take them to the top of the pile, but even the greatest of them have to learn and constantly practice the art and craft of leadership so as to stay at the top and remain effective.
Six months after moving into the White House, President Barack Obama hosted a dinner for nine leading historians who had written extensively about previous US presidents. He asked each of his guests to talk about the presidents he or she had studied, with the goal of providing insights into the problems that he would face in his presidency.2 It is something he has done every year since.
The practices or habits of leadership are deceptively easy to understand but exceptionally difficult to do. It is the doing of them, day after day, week after week, year after year that will help prepare us for effective leadership.
The followers of a leader
The word “leader” itself gives a clue as to what a leader is. It implies followers. Various writers suggest that the answer to the question, ‘Am I a leader?” is simply, “Do you have any followers?”
Why do we follow a leader? Often for fairly selfish reasons: the leader will make possible, or help us achieve, what we want. Sometimes our reasons are more altruistic: the leader will achieve what we believe in, will make possible the future we dream of.
Either way, it is the leader’s vision of the future that inspires followers. As we will see, leadership starts with a vision, is driven by values and maintained by habits.
Our leadership roles
Leadership roles come in all shapes, sizes and durations: leaders may be required to lead a country, a business, an NGO, a sports team or a small group on a short-term project. Each of us has some measure of leadership responsibility, whether in the workplace, at home, in the community, in a faith-based group or on the sports field. Sometimes leadership is imposed on us, more or less permanently, because of our role or position; sometimes we assume leadership in a particular situation for a certain period or for the life of a project.
Kouzes and Posner said, “Somewhere, sometime, the leader in each of us might get the call to step forward…. By believing in yourself and your capacity to learn to lead, you make sure you’ll be prepared when that call comes.”
Next up, “Vision, Values and Habits: buzzwords or key concepts?”